Look for these low-priced standouts

KAREN MACNEIL-FIFE

This time of year, I'm always a little bothered by that oldchestnut "Life's too short to drink bad wine." It's clear thatwhoever coined the phrase probably hadn't just made a serious dentin the family finances thanks to holiday gift giving andentertaining. January is simply not a good time to be splurging onwine. Not that spending less on wine means you have to drink badwine. But the fact is, the more austere your budget, the harder itis to drink very good wine.

Harder, yes; impossible, no. There does exist a whole universeof moderately priced but delicious wines that are easy to buy andeffortless to drink. I call them Wednesday night meat-loaf wines.And, frankly, the world needs them. If every wine were a priceypurchase meant for a special occasion, the historic role of wine asan accompaniment to dinner every night would (sadly) be lost.

From a practical standpoint, then, the question is, How do youget the most bang for your buck? Are there strategies for findingwines with modest price tags that taste like they cost a lot more?Yes. And here are some effective ones.

1. Explore wine regions known for value. Currently, the bestplace on the globe for this is Australia. Because that country hasa relatively sparse population, wine companies there are very savvyabout producing good-value wines for export. At the same time,Australian winemakers are some of the most talented in the world,and there are dozens of regions well suited for growing grapes thatcan be turned into delicious, moderately priced wines. Four othergood sources of top-notch, reasonable wines are New Zealand, Spain,southern Italy, and, closer to home, Washington State. As for Chileand Argentina, they both produce well-priced, delicious wines, butyou may have to sort through a lot of inexpensive, bland-tastingstuff to find them.

2. Within famous wine-growing areas, consider lesser-knownregions. A perfect example is the Mâconnais region inBurgundy, France. Mâcons ― as some of the wines areknown ― cost $10 to $14 or so, while the really famous whitesfrom renowned appellations like Puligny-Montrachet can range from$50 to $100. All are made from Chardonnay grapes.

3. Price shop. The best deals aren't necessarily at yourlocal supermarket, the nearest warehouse-type retailer, or yourfavorite wine shop. On the other hand, the best price could be atany one of those places. Since most wines move through severalmiddlemen and various distribution channels before they becomeavailable to us, wine pricing is complex. So check around beforeyou buy. And if you find a wine you like at a good price, buy awhole case. Virtually every wine shop gives case discounts.

In the end, it's important to have realistic expectations.Wednesday night meat-loaf wines are just that. They're usually nottremendously complex, they probably won't inspire you to write asonnet, and they're not big on finesse. But when these wines aregood, they're very satisfying. They're comfort wines ― justwhat you need in January.

SUNSET'S STEAL OF THE MONTH: McPherson Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 (Southeastern Australia),$8. A soft, mouth-filling wine with tasty black cherry, coffeebean, date, and plum flavors. Pairs well with almost any meatdish.

BEST IN THEIR CLASS

WHITES

Geyser Peak Chardonnay 1999 (Russian River Valley, CA), $16.Juicy and packed with apple fruit and vanilla.

Guenoc Sauvignon Blanc 2000 (North Coast, CA), $14. A crispsurge of green apple, grapefruit, and lemon.

Jepson Sauvignon Blanc 2000 (Mendocino), $11. Herbal andmelony, with a nice fresh character.

Zaca Mesa Chardonnay 2000 (Santa Barbara County), $15.Fresh, citrusy, clean, and creamy.

REDS

Barwang "Regional Selection" Merlot 1998 (Coonawarra,Australia), $14. Richness and spice here, with notes of plum, blackcurrant, and toast.

Bogle Petite Sirah 1999 (California), $10. Bold and gutsy,this is one big wine for a small price.

Trinchero Family Estates "Proprietor's Series" Zinfandel1997 (Amador County, CA), $16. Ripe, rich, and full of berries,this is the kind of wine that ensures Zinfandel its cult following.Available through the winery: (800) 967-4663 or www.sutterhome.com.

Sunset's Wine Club

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